Sri Lankans storm president’s home and office in biggest rally

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan protesters stormed the residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the nearby office on Saturday as tens of thousands of people took to the streets of the capital Colombo during the most big event to date to express their fu

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan protesters stormed the residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his nearby office on Saturday as tens of thousands of people took to the streets of the capital Colombo in the most biggest protest yet to vent their fury against a leader they hold responsible for the island nation’s worst economic crisis.

It was unclear if Rajapaksa was inside his residence, but footage showed hundreds of people inside the well-fortified house and on the grounds outside, some bathing in the pool from the garden and others in a jubilant mood.

A government spokesman, Mohana Samaranayake, said he had no information on Rajapaksa’s whereabouts.

Sri Lanka’s economy is in a state of collapse, coping with help from India and other countries as its leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund. The economic crisis has led to severe shortages of essential items, leaving people in trouble to buy food, fuel and other necessities.

The turmoil has led to months of protests, which have nearly dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests led him to seek refuge at a naval base, while three of Rajapaksa’s other relatives left their cabinet posts earlier. Much of the public anger has been directed at the Rajapaksa family, with protesters accusing them of dragging Sri Lanka into chaos with mismanagement and allegations of corruption.

A new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, took office in May to help pull the country out of the crisis. Meanwhile, Rajapaksa has retained power despite growing calls for him to step down.

On Saturday, as throngs of people broke through barriers to occupy the president’s residence, hundreds of protesters, some carrying national flags, also stormed his beachfront office in another nearby building. Protesters have camped outside the entrance to his office for three months.

Videos posted on social media showed protesters storming the residence, chanting “Gota go home”, calling the president by his nickname. Dozens were seen jumping in the pool, moving around the house and watching television. Outside the building, barricades were knocked down and a black flag was hoisted on a pole.

At the president’s office, security personnel attempted to arrest protesters who pushed through fences to run across lawns and inside the colonial-era building.

At least 34 people including two police officers were injured in scuffles as protesters tried to enter the residence. Two of the injured are in critical condition while others suffered minor injuries, said a Colombo National Hospital official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.

Thousands of protesters entered the capital from the suburbs earlier on Saturday after police lifted an overnight curfew. With fuel supplies scarce, many piled into buses and trains to come to town to protest, while others got around on bicycles and on foot.

Protest and religious leaders called on Rajapaksa to stand down, saying he had lost the mandate of the people.

“His claim that he was elected by Sinhalese Buddhists is no longer valid now,” said Ven. Omalpe Sobitha, a prominent Buddhist leader. He urged parliament to convene immediately to select an interim president, but said Wickremesinghe did not have the support of the people.

In their proclamation, the protest leaders demanded the resignation not only of the president and the government, but also of all government officials and the country’s ambassadors. They said the protesters should have access to governance as a pressure group.

Last month, Wickremesinghe said the country’s economy collapsed. He said negotiations with the IMF have been complex as Sri Lanka is now a failed state.

In April, Sri Lanka announced that it was suspend repayment of foreign loans due to a shortage of foreign currency. Its total external debt stands at $51 billion, of which it must repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.

Police had imposed a curfew in Colombo and several other major urban areas on Friday night, but withdrew it on Saturday morning amid objections from lawyers and opposition politicians who called it illegal.

On Friday, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung urged people to protest peacefully and called on the military and police “to give peaceful protesters the space and security to do so”.

“Chaos and force will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lankans need right now,” Chung said in a tweet.

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Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Krutika Pathi in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Krishan Francis, Associated Press














Carol N. Valencia